The Book of Mormon indicates that Isaiah is an extremely important prophet, for Christ himself admonished the Nephites:And now, behold, I say unto you,
that ye ought to search these
things. Yea, a commandment I give
unto you that ye search these
things diligently; for great are the
words of Isaiah.
(III Nephi 23:1)
Yet, in our day, Isaiah, as many of the other Old Testament prophets, still seems to present difficulties and obstacles to our understanding. As Elder McConkie pointed out:
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“Let us freely acknowledge that many people find Isaiah hard to understand. His words are almost totally beyond the comprehension of those in the churches of the world. Nephi said, “. . . Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand . . .” (II Nephi 25:1) Even in the true church, among those who should be enlightened by the gift of the Holy Ghost, there are those who skip the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon as though they were part of a sealed book, which perhaps they are to them.” 1Hopefully, the following pages will help to remove a couple of the obstacles to understanding Isaiah by rendering his words in a translation that incorporates not only advances in our understanding of the Hebrew vocabulary he uses, and explanations of the historical and geographical references in his work, but also the necessary corrections provided by the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon. Elder McConkie continues:
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“. . . If, as many suppose, Isaiah ranks with the most difficult of the prophets to understand, his words are also among the most important for us to know and ponder. Some Latter-day Saints have managed to open the seal and catch a glimpse of the prophetic wonders that came from his pen, but even among the Saints there is little more than a candle glow where this great treasure trove is concerned.” 2In Isaiah’s case, we are well informed about the dates of his prophetic activity, for he tells us which kings ruled during his lifetime. We know that Isaiah was called as a prophet in the year of Uzziah's death, which was about 740 BC. That much is contained in his book. Unfortunately, we are less certain about the date of his death. Later legends tell us he was martyred during the reign of Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, who ruled from 698 to 642 BC.
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I will not try to outline the entire book at this point, but there are a few things which might be helpful for the reader to know before beginning the book. I will therefore make a few observations:
The first chapter of Isaiah is conspicuously absent from the Book of Mormon record, which starts with chapter 2. I seem to recall a comment from Hugh Nibley suggesting that the first chapter may have been written as a type of introduction at a much later time.3 Whether or not he actually stated it in that way, it made sense to me at the time, and still does.
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Chapter 2 does indeed seem to be a logical beginning which is well connected to what follows it. In chapter 3 he discusses a time when the daughters of Zion are morally corrupted, and the Lord decides to bring them to repentance through appropriate afflictions. But that chapter also tells us about a war that is coming, and the reason that he mentions the war in the same chapter as the problems that the Lord is having with the daughters of Zion, is because the war provides part of the solution to the problems he is having with the women. He says that many of the men die in the war, and that sets up the situation described in chapter 4, where there is such a shortage of men, that seven women ask one man to marry all of them; and we are informed that during this time, it is considered a great disgrace for a woman not to be married. Apparently those who have managed to marry, ridicule the women who were not able to find husbands, hence the rush toward polygamous situations. But also in chapter 4 we are told that Jerusalem will be purged, and all who remain will be called saints. And all of these things seem to be related to the outcome of the war he mentioned only in passing at the end of chapter 3.
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To which war is Isaiah referring in chapter 3? There seem to be two main battles (perhaps three) described by the OT prophets. The first (most imminent) battle is that of Gog/Magog described in Ezek. 38-39, and the second is that of Armageddon. Often these two are confused and even many LDS assume that they are both just two different names for the same event. But that is not the case. The battle of Armageddon (mentioned by that name only in Rev. 16:16) is the final, pre-millennial battle between good and evil; whereas the battle of Gog/Magog is an earlier battle in which a coalition of forces takes over the Middle East.4 The war mentioned in Isa. 3 could refer to either, but Isaiah does seem to spend a great deal of time and energy dealing with the Gog/Magog conflict, as we will discuss below.
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Chapter 11 is of special significance for Latter-day Saints, because that is the chapter which was quoted to Joseph Smith by Moroni the night that that angel visited him in 1823. This chapter could perhaps be described as a synopsis of the of the final dispensation. It tells us about Christ, the Millennial peace, and the gathering of the “outcasts” of Israel (i.e. the northern tribes), and the “dispersed” of Judah. It then tells us about the reunification of Judah and Ephraim in the land of Israel, and he also mentions the lands of Assyria and Egypt which will have a special role in the Millennium, as he will again mention at the end of chapter 27.
In chapters 13-23 Isaiah gives more specific details about the fates of the countries of the Middle East, beginning with Babylon (in modern-day Iraq) and ending with Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon). In chapter 13 in particular, it is apparent that he is talking about the same war as Ezekiel’s Gog/Magog scenario. In particular, he mentions the armies of the Medes, who were located in modern-day Iran, and that ties this chapter into Ezekiel’s war.
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Many other treasures are to be found in Isaiah, but those will be left for the reader to discover. I will merely add one additional comment regarding the authorship of Isaiah. It has been popular among non-LDS scholars to say that everything after chapter 39 of Isaiah was written by someone other than Isaiah at a much later date. That claim is based, at least in part, on the assumption that prophecy does not really exist, and that people like Isaiah could not really see the future. So when Isaiah mentions Cyrus in 44:28, a Persian king who lived long after the time of Isaiah, these “scholars” loudly proclaim that someone else (some who lived during or after the time of Cyrus) must have written that material. Latter-day Saints, however, should not have any trouble believing that prophets really do see future events from time to time.
In order to give the best possible translation of Isaiah, I compared the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon to the Masoretic text. And since the Book of Mormon version was based on a much earlier version of Isaiah, I first emended the Hebrew of the MT to bring it in line with the Book of Mormon text, and then retranslated from Hebrew to English. The chapters affected by that were the following: Isa. 48 and 49 (=I Nephi 20 and 21); Isa. 50 (=II Nephi 7); Isa. 51:1-52:2 (=II Nephi 8); Isa. 2-14 (=II Nephi 12-24); Isa. 54 (=III Nephi 22).
2. Ibid. In that same article, McConkie also lays out ten things that Latter-day Saints should do in order to prepare themselves to understand Isaiah, and I would suggest that all who are serious about grasping his doctrine should follow those steps even before continuing with the study of Isaiah’s words.
3. I believe I ran across such a comment while reading his book, Since Cumorah, when I was investigating the Church in 1976.
4. For those who wish more details on these two confrontations, see Appendix 4.